Vincent Jordan visits esea Manchester and reflects on issues in contemporary art
Above: A Phantom's Vibe installations at esea Manchester. Photo: author's own.
Friends often ask me how I feel about contemporary art, and are usually greeted with a lukewarm response. Although there are some contemporary artists whose work I enjoy, and I rarely decline the chance to visit exhibitions, I know I’m more likely to find shows on traditional art more satisfying. But the questions that get asked about contemporary art are more often concerned with recognition over enjoyment. Many people who don’t routinely engage with art in their lives not only consider contemporary art —usually referred to as modern — to be something entirely separate to traditional art but also not art at all.
Recognition is entwined with accessibility. It is obvious from just chatting to people that most find artworks in traditional media - like painted canvas, marble or bronze sculpture - easier to approach and appreciate than those in others. These things look like what we call art, and their materials intrinsically associate them with that world. We can essentially think of them as things that couldn’t be anything else: there is no mistaking a Frans Hals portrait for a living person standing in front of you any more than mistaking St Paul’s Cathedral for a house.
In contrast, a lot of contemporary art uses non-traditional media — and performance — and these pieces appear to many people to have nothing in them that tells us they are artworks; a point that keeps coming up in my conversations is that what signifies these pieces as contemporary art, at least for the less enthused, is the simple fact that they are in an art gallery. The crux of the issue is the extent to which an artwork appears to rely on its institutional setting for recognition. It is probably true that a great deal of contemporary practice is forced into institutional settings because people wouldn’t recognise it as art otherwise.
Personally, the question of whether something is or isn’t art doesn’t interest me as much as value judgements. Though art doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyable, whether I like something or not certainly affects my appreciation of it. After consideration, I think there are two reasons for my tepid reaction to contemporary art. First is its intensely personal turn; so much contemporary art begins from the artist’s own experiences, but differ from many traditional works in that they sustain this personal note to a pervasive degree. The content of the piece is marked by very specific events or emotions in the artist’s life to the extent that it is restricted to them. The second factor is closely related: the living artist getting in the way. The artist is always on hand to say: no, this sculpture is not about your idea of sadness, it’s about my specific sadness, at this specific time, when this specific thing happened to me. This feeling of obstruction does not arise from more informal channels (for instance press interviews where an artist declares their intentions) but more institutional ones, for instance the way we are often given a sort of instructional guidebook in the form of wall text or flyers, which interpret and explain exactly what is going on. The most we can do is sympathise.
Yet, I yearn for art that defies these obstacles. That is why I’ve recently made more of an effort to go to these things and spend more time thinking about them — particularly exhibitions of non-traditional media. Some weeks ago, I took a trip to esea contemporary in Manchester’s Northern Quarter to visit A Phantom’s Vibe by British/Hong-Kong artist Dinu Li.
esea contemporary claims to be the UK’s only non-profit gallery that specialises in East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) art, and arose from community arts practice. Under its previous name, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, it operated from the late 1980s and has since become ‘a dynamic and engaging space for cross-cultural exchanges in the British arts scene, as well as a global context’. As you might infer from this rather tired phrasing, the rhetoric of dynamism is beyond cliché, and is cherry-topped by the familiar emphasis on ‘creativity, compassion, interconnectedness, and collectivity in implementing its mission’. But this rhetoric is not to be held against it especially — I struggle to think of a contemporary gallery that doesn’t play up this sort of banality. What really interested me about esea was its focus on diasporic Asian artworks; it has a refreshingly limited pool to draw from, but one that I thought might reach beyond it to make connections with its Manchester locality and public. Whereas other contemporary arts spaces might pull out the ‘dynamics’, the ‘vibrants’, and the interdisciplinarities to cover a lot of ground and include as many different artists as possible, esea’s more solid focus and ambition stand out.
Having endured a half hour of Manchester rain, I rocked up at esea on a bleak Sunday morning. The place was completely deserted, and I had the exhibitions all to myself. Once I’d made the customary attempt to dry out in the loo, and resigned myself to northern sogginess, I made my way to the narrow corridor between the foyer and the gallery space. Before I head in, I pick up one of the exhibition pamphlets from a box on the white wall. The interpretation is prolix. I get as much as I can from it before the involuntary puddle around my shoes becomes an embarrassment. By now I know that I am not just going into a visual art exhibition, A Phantom’s Vibe is a solo exhibition that combines music, sculptural assemblages, and video installation; and it ‘explores the complexities of colonial history, cultural memory, and hybrid identities’. I know Duan Li grew up a while in Hong Kong, where he wandered through working-class market districts; I know he frequented inner-city blues parties during his ‘1980s Manchester youth’ (oh, couldn’t we all?); and I know he lives in Cornwall.
Above: entrance to the exhibition space at esea. Photo: author's own.
The portal at the end of the corridor looks ominous but enticing; it has a quiet glow of deep hues. When I walk through its dense plastic hangs, it’s like a taboo. I leave beads of Moss Side rain on them: the strips don’t cling to me as easily. Immediately the imagery of wandering through a market district comes to mind. And inside, the noise is oppressive. Straight in front of me is an assemblage that resembles a ritual altar or ceremonial shrine. This is Shanking Hawker (2023), and the sounds it emanates are a marriage of Chinese mountain songs and a sampling of Always Together. Always Together is the nucleus of this artscape (it’s a small room). My leaflet tells me that when the artist was a child in Hong Kong, he overheard Always Together and assumed it was a Chinese folk classic. Later in his life, Li found out the song was taped in Jamaica in 1967, in one of a small number of recording studios set up by Chinese ‘coolies’.
Above: Shanking Hawker (2023) by Dinu Li. Photo: author's own.
The synthesis of tribal sounds and diasporic reggae sets the vibe of the room. Li himself refers to this vibe as that of a phantom, because Always Together, he feels, ‘is my own phantom, disappearing [from his Hong Kong childhood] and reappearing [at Mancunian blues parties] unexpectedly’. And this notion of the phantom is accurate; as I creep around the dimly lit space (resembling the glow of streetlights) all I can think of is the uncanny. The mood as I experience it alone is eerie and uncomfortable. Against the clunky riffs I spot thematic triggers scattered about the assemblages. I see small songbirds — flight, escape, journeys; and long thin feathers slightly swaying in an impalpable breeze. Everything seems like it is slowly moving.
Perched up a wall near Shanking Hawker is A Phantom’s Vibe (2023). This assemblage is a microcosm of the eponymous exhibition. A sheet of tarpaulin is cut out to resemble a doorway, decked with a beaded hanging curtain. This is drawn to one side, inviting the spectator to walk through, but the passage is blocked by a large silver disk and a small shelf supporting a 7” record of Chinese folk songs. The singer is Stephen Cheng, who sings ‘Always Together’. The curtain is tied back by a tangle of merchant’s rope and hair extensions, which droop to the floor. When I finally look down, there‘s a model hand with two fingers outstretched, emerging from a sparkling disk.
Above: A Phantom's Vibe (2023) by Dinu Li. Photo: author's own.
Hair features in several works, often mangled with cable ties or rope. It makes me think, I suppose, of the parallel between childhood memory (having hair combed by a parent, watching it grow) and old age (hair falling out), but in this context it evokes an irony — hair extensions make me think of ‘pulling one’s hair out’. The rectangular sheets and beaded hangs, which look like portals, exacerbate discomfort when you turn your back to them. Shipping crates also appear, and in the assemblage Natty Hustler (2023) are tattooed with French mottos. At first, I had no idea what they were meant to signify beyond the evocation of shipping; later I realised that ‘bon accord’, which is marked on the crates, is the ancient motto of Aberdeen in Scotland, and therefore also Aberdeen, Hong Kong.
Above: Bon Accord crates, which form Natty Hustler (2023). Photo: author's own.
A Phantom’s Vibe — the exhibition — feels as if I have just stepped into someone’s mind. The nostalgic paraphernalia of a different place — childhood, or another country — is a pressing reminder of my alienness; a visitor to someone else’s life. There is no set path around A Phantom’s Vibe, just as there wouldn’t be for a market. Its works are numbered in the booklet, but this so that we can match them to a list of titles, rather than rove numerically. When I leave the trance and return to the narrow white corridor, I’m confident I know what A Phantom’s Vibe is about. I feel almost as though I am coming down, as Shanking Hawker peters out, watching me walk away.
Walking through the corridor, I was confident in my interpretation of the assemblages and their juxtaposition with music, light, and all the other exhibition paraphernalia. Though I didn’t immediately enjoy my time in the exhibition space, I could see how Li’s practice facilitated a valuable reflection on hybrid-identity and liminality. I naively assumed that the discomfort I felt was a deliberate evocation. I made the connections I thought were obvious — between diaspora and migration, flight and home, portals and entrances, home and belonging. I assumed that A Phantom’s Vibe was a classic statement on the feeling of non-belonging, on feeling discomfort in new places, and a peculiar nostalgia for the furniture of a previous life.
The experience also had an educational function for me because I don’t engage with assemblage very often. In place of an immediate aesthetic pleasure, or pure wonder at the ways in which a medium has been manipulated, I felt curiosity and trepidation. I wanted to figure out why Li had combined certain things and figure out what they meant. My conceptualising was exacerbated by Li’s use of quotidian materials — plastic mesh, tape, door drapes, shelving. Looking harder for connections and meaning between objects contributed to the sense of the uncanny.
Returning to the foyer, a pitying smile from behind the reception desk reminds me that I must still look fresh out of the bowels of a washing machine. Not wanting to seem totally zonked, I peruse the exhibition collateral for sale in the shop area. I glimpse a quote from Li:
'I’d like to invite viewers to be open-minded about the way they perceive the world and to challenge themselves about alternative perspectives. I hope visitors subvert their usual patterns of behaviour in an institutional gallery. I just want people to have a good time and bounce around the space to the music playing out of my assemblage.'
This took me aback. How could I have felt so uncomfortable experiencing something engineered for a ‘good time’? How could the artist’s intention be so far removed from my interpretation of his work? Reading Li’s words, it became evident that his objectives and my experience were conflicting. Whereas previously I thought I ‘got’ the art — I appreciated and understood what it was trying to do — just reading these few sentences was like going back to square one, because Li’s intentions are made known by an institutionalised medium.
This example of the artist being so at odds with a spectator’s interpretation of their work is uniquely acute in the sphere of contemporary art. In this way, my experience of A Phantom’s Vibe affirmed the prejudices it was meant to remedy; the rift between my feelings and the artist’s conception of the exhibition hampered my enjoyment. However, I also think this gulf is symptomatic of the other issue in contemporary art — the personal turn. Many of the things that Li alludes to are his intimate personal experiences — episodes from his own life, the literal stuff of his childhood, his experiences in Hong Kong and Manchester; his investment in specificity, and his restrictive perspective on what he creates, inhibited my ability to empathise with his work. And this is where, I think, my sense of the uncanny arose from — A Phantom’s Vibe reflects on events and narratives very personal to the artist, but struggles to make this blossom into a more universally appreciable idea or emotion. Although what I admire about esea’s manifesto is its focus — platforming ESEA artists affected by diaspora — I did not expect this to morph into a limitation on the reach of the artworks it exhibits, and as a result the audiences it might attract.
It is tempting to identify this turn with the shedding of communal value, which is, ironically, one of the criticisms that has stuck to esea as an institution — that it turned away from its community-focused roots. These things are separate, but the parallel is irresistible. Like most art galleries, esea has accumulated some suckerfish-style controversies. In fact, given its relatively niche status, the ‘criticism and controversy’ section of its Wikipedia page seems disproportionate. But what is unavoidable here is that the very thing that hooked me about the centre — i.e. its focus on ESEA artists — is also the hotbed for its disputes. Almost all criticisms of esea relate to race and nationality concerns; it has consistently been accused of institutional racism, and in June 2021 this came to a head when all but one of its non-white trustees resigned. As this article by Vice highlights, the issues boil down to the fact that many see the centre as being dominated by people who are white, and employees of ESEA heritage have reported feeling like ‘token’ faces. Problems stem from the gulf between esea’s intrinsic focus on Asian artists and culture, and the apparent lack of Asian representation in the upper echelons of management.
But I think, despite all these issues, Li’s art is capable of speaking to a community, albeit a small one. When we think about art appealing to a specific community, what we are really talking about is the conveyance of shared emotion, or creative response to a communal experience. I cannot honestly judge whether or not A Phantom’s Vibe does this, because I myself am ill equipped to know, and this is ultimately where all my problems in appreciating contemporary art synthesise. It seems that so many galleries and artists now wrap themselves in the rhetoric of inclusivity, but then showcase artworks that depend on such specific experiences that they become exclusive. Is this a significant problem — that most of the people who visit an exhibition like this won't be from the community for whom it is fully intelligible?
Although A Phantom’s Vibe fazed me, I feel all the better for having experienced it, and I would like to visit more of Li’s shows. Perhaps this solves a few of our problems — these things are always worth experiencing for their educational value. But it hasn’t solved them all. Maybe the rugged individualism of contemporary practice will forever be my own phantom, appearing and then disappearing out of view; or perhaps the true phantom is the living artist, ever looming large.
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space.
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